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Information Design and Your Brand

Information Design and Your Brand

[By Karen Geier]

The amount of information the average person processes in a day is at an all-time high. Not only can we consume data anywhere at any time, but the amount of content being created is enormous. What can help your information and writing stand out above the others is how you express your points visually.

Four years ago, Nate Silver was a guy who had a knack for numbers. Now, his website, Five Thirty Eight, regularly takes on subjects that are hard to visualize and makes them accessible to lay people. Last year he successfully predicted presidential elections and the World Cup victory. While reporting on both, the site used images to tell the story of their data.

You don’t have to predict World Cup results to present the information you have  in a compelling way. It starts with a few rules, and you simply adapt your visuals to the story you’re trying to tell.

The Temptation of the Chart Button

It’s very easy to look at the chart button on your spreadsheet software and try to find a chart that “looks good” when printed on a slide, but there are actually some guidelines for which charts to use when.

Most charts you create answer questions about one of four things: A relationship between two or more things, a comparison between things, a collection of things, or a distribution (it is rare to use a distribution in a visual presentation, but it does happen).

All chart types are created to display one type of relationship well, and it’s important that you recognize this and adhere to it. Creativity is great, but charts are part of a visual math language, and it’s important to use the same language your audience speaks.

If you are stumped as to which type of chart to use, there are two great resources to help you figure it out – to get the hang of which chart to use and when. The first is the Chart Chooser  from Juice Labs and the second is a flow chart from Amit Agarwal  (useful for printing and posting in areas where your team might need the help).

Once you’ve decided on a chart type, you need to be very clear on what story you are trying to tell with the data and who you are trying to tell it to. Assume very little prior knowledge and be very selective with the language that you use. It’s important to express the data in ways that reflect an average person’s experience with the world. For instance, animals in Japan are sometimes referred to by how many “apples high” they are instead of in centimeters or inches. This is a nice shortcut way of expressing numerical information in a way that reflects a real-world experience (holding an apple).

If you’re not using charts, you can use this idea to better express your data visually. Often, in Wired Magazine or Five Thirty Eight, extremely large numbers are indicated in ways that help you easily visualize the scale, like “it is 5 times taller than the Empire State Building” or “it’s so long, it could reach 1.5 times around the world.”  While the average person may not be able to calculate the circumference of the earth, they understand just how vast it is.

Infographic best practices

Everyone is building infographics and often these infographics have pieces of data-based information on them that are not expressed optimally. You must consider the entire story that is being told and not just put all your data on one page. It’s important to use the correct chart for the correct data set and be crystal clear to an uninitiated audience with all visual representations.

It’s also important to not mix visual metaphor with data. You could express how much water a human being has in his or her body with a drawing of 140 coke cans to indicate how much water that is, or you can express it as a percentage of body mass, showing a silhouette filled 65% of the way. Both are accurate. Only one gets the point across in an efficient way.

Infographics carry another risk: the data visualizations should talk to each other. Don’t allow a designer to go wild with the representations. This will make the total picture confusing. You may want to consider limiting the number of data points you show.

Expressing data visually is a daunting task for people not used to working with math and charts regularly, but it’s important to understand and be able to execute on the most crucial parts of visualizing data: chart selection, narrative clarity, and audience targeting. Always strive for readability and simplicity in information design.

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